The curious cat and other stories

After listening and reading a lot about the Hole in the Wall over the past 10 years or so and other such experiments and viewing Dr. Sugata Mitra’s latest TED Talk, I am inspired to ask the question – what makes the cat curious?

What if I did not put a high-speed PC with Internet access in the hole in the wall? Can I think of other machines or experiences that could create a similar effect?

Let us take the example of a karaoke machine put in the hole or in a room of a school. Will kids be able to master it without intervention in a few days? Will some of them teach other children? Will one or two of them, with natural talent, end up getting inspired to an opera singer after being inundated with all the reality singing shows on their TV every night? Is it possible that a particular genre of music will emerge that is terribly unique and innovative?

I would say, yes to all of the above. The reasons – kids are a curious lot, they love play and perhaps even love showing off their skills. Can I say the machine helped them learn how to sing? I am not so sure. Perhaps someone discovered that one note sounded different from the other in the tune being played.

In his 1999 article, Curiosity and Exploration, Jason Piccone states:

How does one become curious? Saxe and Stollak (1971) found support for their social learning theory that both parental reinforcement and modeling foster children’s curiosity and exploration. Endsley, Hutcherson, Garner and Martin (1979) observed mothers and their children in a play situation. They found first of all that boys and girls explored novel materials equally often; however girls asked about twice as many questions. Girls’ mothers interacted more with their daughters than their boys. Most importantly, the frequencies with which the mothers showed exploratory behavior, curiosity orienting behavior, and question answering were all correlated with children’s exploration and questions about the stimuli.

Sugata invokes the example of a group of 12-year-old speaking Tamil (a language of South India) in a village (Kalikuppam) in southern India who he wanted to teach a course in biotechnology written in English. He thought if the experiment failed, he would be able to conclude “Yes, we would need teachers for certain things!”.

The experiment ran over two months and when he returned to the group, he asked them what they learnt. They said they learnt nothing. Till a girl piped up to say dismissively, they learnt nothing except “Apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we have understood nothing else”.

Now I don’t know if that was an inference from the actual courseware or a repetition of a statement that they had been staring at for two months or something they picked up from the web or whether it was the visual design of the course that communicated the concept. But they memorized/arrived at a conclusion with the general feeling of having learnt nothing. Learnt nothing could mean that they sincerely did not understand what was being told, or did not relate to it, or were confused about what they were expected to learn. And perhaps at that level a few pieces of paper with elegant drawings and a Tamil-English dictionary would have served the purpose equally.

Sugata also concludes that educational technology must play first its greatest role at the bottom of the pyramid because Arthur Clarke said to him: “A teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should”. In his experience, perhaps that is the case at the bottom of the pyramid.

Perhaps the use of educational technology at the bottom of the pyramid would be to train the teachers rather than eliminate personal touch and various other affordances to small children.

In the Italian example, he wondered about how a group of kids could use Google translate to Italian his questions in English and then do the reverse to answer him. In doing so, in my opinion across his experiments, he neglects the role of the environment and life experiences contributing to the learning processes in much the same way the show organizers did in the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire.

Several skills are also translatable skills – from one environment to another. I don’t know if there is a study about how skills learnt in one environment can actually be translated into a new application – for example, I know military officers are the ones mostly in charge of large logistics operations in the corporate sector because of their training. Do these skills play a role in addition to curiosity aiding the discovery process?

Sugata takes the help of Montessori, Piaget and Vygotsky to explain the phenomenon and ties in a liberal dose of self-organization and complexity, two influences that I have been introduced to in  the context of Connectivism as well. “Education is a self organizing system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon”, Will reports of Sugata’s new TED Talk in his post. These concepts came after a large amount of thinking was placed at re-envisioning the nature of agents in a network and how they operate, large contradicting the standard vision of the rational agent.

For example, Waldrop, talking about Brian Arthur, in the book Complexity (p. 48), says:

If small chance events can lock you in to any of several possible outcomes, then the outcome that’s actually selected may not be the best. And that means that maximizing individual freedom – and the free market – might not produce the best of all possible worlds.

Constructivism and the work of theorists like Bruner (Discovery Learning) talks how a “learner draws on his or her own past experience and existing knowledge to discover facts and relationships and new truths to be learned. Students interact with the world by exploring and manipulating objects, wrestling with questions and controversies, or performing experiments.” Dr. Mark Federman makes the connect between complexity and constructivism in an interesting article.

By the way, I thought that Granny cloud concept rocked. I think that will work across borders (that was particularly innovative) as demonstrated by Dr. Mitra.

4 thoughts on “The curious cat and other stories

Add yours

  1. Dr Mitra gave a keynote to the ALT conference I attended in Manchester this week. For me it was inspiring, and itraised several issues. The importance of affect and context (the children were motivated, they were curious, they had the freedom to explore, they had the confidence to be wrong – which he found teenagers and adults didn’t have) and the importance of dialogue (it didn’t work if the children weren’t in small groups or if they were inhibited from talking).
    I was curious about whether this worked for every child in the group. Were some excluded by the others? If so, did they just drift away, or did they disrupt the others? Did some children do spectacularly well or make no progress at all? We saw the average scores, but no breakdown of those.
    Would it have worked with more difficult questions? If asked why the world is warming, would the children have gone for climate change, or for natural variation, for a mixture of both or for some other explanation? If asked whether the world is due to end in 2012 would they have picked the wrong information sources and concluded that it is?
    Lots of questions, because this work raises so many possibilities.
    And yes, I agree the Granny cloud concept rocks 🙂


    1. Rebecca, these are important questions you are raising. For me this work has always raised the question – so what? And I am unable to share all the enthusiasm about the concept, although I think there is innovation and serious work being put in, that illustrates the fact that children’s curiosity, their ability to collaborate, their sensemaking and wayfinding processes are being ignored more and more in the traditional system of education.

      Thanks for your comment!


    1. Thats’s so cool, Gaurav! It must have been a real experience being there as it unfolded and took its first steps! Kudos for being a part of the early brainstorming on these projects with Sugata!


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